We have once again arrived at the immortal genre of true crime. More specifically, interest in true crime and crime dramas related to the Mormon faith appears to be skyrocketing. From Hulu’s “Under the Banner of Heaven” to Netflix’s “Murder Among the Mormons,” it seems as though the public’s fascination with the LDS (or Mormon) church and its secrets has increased exponentially. Netflix’s “Sins of Our Mother” is the latest addition to the craze.
“Sins of Our Mother” details the story of Lori Vallow, aka the “Doomsday Mom,” and her connections to both the LDS church and a number of heinous crimes, including the murder of her fourth husband and her own two children. Between 2019 and 2020, Lori and her fifth husband, Chad Daybell, amassed media notoriety after Lori’s children were reported missing, which led to an investigation that uncovered bizarre events involving suspicious deaths, extreme religious fanaticism and even talks about human “zombies.” The documentary preys on the audience’s sometimes sick interest in the suffering of others in three episodes, filling the 139 minutes with accounts from the family, interviews with law enforcement and live footage of Lori and her family. Netflix has nailed the true crime formula, roping in viewers with a gradual buildup and revealing major events in a stomach-twisting fashion.
The documentary moves chronologically, beginning with interviews with Lori’s parents describing her and her siblings’ upbringings in the LDS church, putting a special emphasis on just how committed Lori was to the teachings of the church even at a young age. The documentary plants little seeds like this throughout the beginning episode, trying to sell the audience a portrait of a doting mother doing her best for her children, yet hinting that maybe not everything was as normal as it looked. Lori’s adult life began with multiple abusive relationships, causing unimaginable trauma to her and her eldest son, Colby. Once Lori had her second child, Tylee, and adopted her third, JJ, with her fourth husband Charles Vallow, things seemed to be looking up for the family … until it all started to go sideways.
Through Lori’s interaction with the group “Preparing a People,” we learn that Lori thought she was God’s chosen “warrior,” someone who was handpicked to survive the second coming of Christ and destined to rid the “unworthy” who had “dark spirits.” Naturally, given that the history of the LDS church is steeped in racism, statements like these are bound to make anyone uneasy. We later find that Lori and her future husband Chad’s labeling system of “light” and “dark spirits” extended to their own family members. Text messages and emails in the documentary reveal that Lori and Chad both thought that their respective spouses were possessed by some sort of demonic entity, which proved to be strong evidence when they both ended up murdered. Later, during the investigation of Lori’s missing children, Tylee and JJ, Lori’s eldest son, Colby, and his wife discovered a list labeling everyone — including the missing children — as “dark spirits.”
On June 9, 2020, police found the remains of Tylee and JJ on Chad’s property in Rexburg, Idaho. It was later determined that both children were murdered within a month of their disappearance, in September 2019. They were aged 17 and 7, respectively.
Nothing left a pit in my stomach quite like seeing the footage of Lori in court after her arrest. This woman, who murdered her own two children, turned around and smirked at JJ’s grandparents. In the clips shown in the documentary, both Lori and Chad’s expressions were smug and nonchalant, like they knew something the rest of us didn’t. During phone calls with his mother in jail, a distraught Colby begs to know why Lori took his siblings away from him. Lori insists that he “just doesn’t know,” and that one day “you will see.” Similarly, Lori and Chad gaslit others close to them to try and convince them that their way was the path to righteousness. This kind of absurd response begs the question — how much does it take for religious fanaticism to induce delusion? Even after taking the lives of her own children, Lori insists that she is to be absolved of wrongdoing, that she is righteous and that everyone else simply doesn’t understand what she does. After Lori spent time in a mental wellness facility, the documentary tells us that she was deemed fit to stand trial this past April. What this tells us is that a woman deemed sane in the eyes of the law allowed the lives of her children to be taken, and by all accounts feels no remorse.
How could something like this have been prevented? Did no one pick up on the signs? Like Lori’s talk of having lived other lives, claiming she had been to other worlds and having conversations with angels — that wasn’t suspicious enough for anyone? Yes, Lori’s mother and son described her behavior as “weird,” but surely it must have been weird enough to intervene. Why did no one believe Charles when he told authorities that Lori was going to hurt the children? Something, anything, to prevent the senseless murder of two innocent children. I am by no means blaming the rest of the family for Lori’s actions; rather, I aim to pose a question: how much is too much? Especially within the LDS church, at what point do a member’s thoughts and actions become dangerous and alarming to the rest of the community?
True crime is designed to make the viewer feel uneasy, but “Sins of Our Mother” left me with a rage that I cannot put into words — due in no small part to the manner of storytelling. The documentary tells the story bluntly and without sensationalism, and while it takes the liberty of portraying Lori’s words and actions as those of a fanatic, it’s safe to say that a viewer would have come to that conclusion anyway. Lori Vallow and Chad Daybell are set to stand trial in 2023, and after watching “Sins of Our Mother,” it’s all I can do to hope that these criminals face the consequences of their actions.
Daily Arts Writer Swara Ramaswamy can be reached at email@example.com.